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Hawaii Exporter Puts “Skin in the Game”

Curt Cultice

Musicians change tune, start beauty products business.

Can you imagine two professional musicians changing their tune, and starting successful businesses in the beauty industry? Well, look no further than Holly and Ashley Harding. Holly, a native of Orlando, Florida, pursued her long-held dream of attending music school in the Big Apple. After a few years as a professional musician playing the clarinet, she changed paths, eventually relocating to the famous North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii in 2003 with her husband Ashley, a saxophone player in the U.S. Air Force Band. 

“At the time, we both clicked and shared the vision of becoming entrepreneurs,” Holly says. “Ashley fell in love with Asia during his travel to Japan in the early 1990s. And knowing their con­sumers’ passion for beauty products, came up with the idea of selling natural Hawaii handmade bar soaps and lotions under our own brand.” 

After crafting their business plan, the couple formed their own company in 2003, Bubble Shack Hawaii (Bubble Shack). Over the next few years, their business was wildly successful, with robust sales domestically and in several markets in Asia. Eventually, the firm grew to a staff of 30 employees, and by 2016, after years in the business, Holly and Ashley were contemplating change.

NEW COMPANY, NEW EXPORT HORIZONS 

In 2017, looking for a fresh start, the couple made a bold move: they sold Bubble Shack and began developing an inte­grated line of skin care prod­ucts under their new company, O’o Hawaii. Named after the Hawaii`ō`ō bird, the brand is inspired by Hawaii’s beautiful natural environment. 

After selling Bubble Shack, Holly had gone back to nutri­tion school and learned about holistic health—and how it can benefit the skin. At the same time, she had started a business in health coaching, but missed having a product to sell. 

“We started O’o Hawaii be­cause we thought the brand of Hawaii for upscale skin care was under leveraged,” Holly says. “So, we came up with a plan to showcase the skin-lov­ing antioxidants grown in Ha­waii specially formulated with plant-based proprietary com­plexes that together provide high performance skincare.” 

The company says it’s the Ha­waii-grown antioxidants that differentiate its products from competitors, with ingredients like red algae, Kona coffeeber­ry, fermented sea silt, straw­berry guava and noni. 

“The natural ingredients are vegetarian, non-GMO, cruelty free, and when available, are grown organically in Hawaii,” Holly says. “We have a concise regimen, consisting of eight products that work for all ages and skin types.” 

CUE THE EXPORT EXPERTS 

Like thousands of other busi­nesses, Bubble Shack made solid exporting inroads early on with help from the U.S. Commercial Service and other federal, state, and local part­ners. 

As the trade promotion arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administra-tion, the U.S. Commercial Service helps U.S. companies export through a global network of 100+ offices across the United States and in more than 75 countries. 

“Our office started working with Holly and Ashley in their early days with Bubble Shack,” says John Holman, Director of the U.S. Commercial Service Hawaii. “Through consulta­tions, we evaluated and deter­mined which of their product lines—cosmetics, gifts, or pet products—would be easiest to launch, and which specific export markets would make the most sense.” 

“We targeted Asia as a good starting point to focus interna­tionally,” says Holly. “We were confident our products would appeal to the region given ear­ly indicators of the popularity of our products in Hawaii with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese visitors, as well as the overall popularity of skincare prod­ucts in Asia in general.” 

After meeting with Director Holman, and with subsequent research and guidance, the Bubble Shack team was ready to put their plan into action. Over the next several months, specific Asian markets were targeted as the couple stepped up their export game. Finding the right international business partner can be a challenge for entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Commercial Service stepped in to assist. 

Shortly thereafter, the Hardings were tapping several customized export services: the Gold Key business matchmaking service in Taiwan and the International Company Profile Service which pre-screened potential partners in Korea and distributor leads from Japan. 

They also lever­aged trade show support from the U.S. Commercial Service, and ex­port financing from the Small Business Admin­istration and the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM Bank). 

During this time, Ashley also partic­ipated in Export University, a series of how-to export courses offered by the Hawaii Pacific Export Council, which works close­ly with the local U.S. Commercial Service to promote exporting and as­sist companies in their local commu­nities to export. 

The result? New distribution channels formed, and export sales were made—in all three markets. 

“When Holly and Ashley started O’o Hawaii, they applied their Bubble Shack learning experiences in developing their new export strategy,” Holman says. “Just like in the early days, when­ever our office informs them of an opportunity—export services, grant opportunities, or trade show leads, they go for it—it’s a testament to their perseverance.” 

The new O’o Hawaii export strategy was tailored for selling high-end niche products to more selective target audiences, as opposed to the earlier strategy with Bubble Shack that marketed products to general consumers.

First on O’o Hawaii’s export horizon was Hong Kong, one of the company’s earliest export markets. Shortly thereafter was Aus­tralia, where Ashley says the U.S. Commercial Service went “above and beyond,” in providing a list of sev­eral well-qualified prescreened potential dis­tributors, one of which led to new sales to that country. 

O’o Hawaii is actively pursuing several other market opportunities, including China. Says Ashley: “Our U.S. Commercial Service contact in Shanghai did a background check and made a personal visit to our prospective buyer to help us seal the deal. One of the biggest values of this assistance is having the backing and repu­tation of the U.S. government behind us, as it can help make all the difference in the eyes of the buyer.” 

UNDERSTANDING CULTURAL PREFERENCES 

Holly and Ashley Harding share a passion for en­trepreneurship and beauty products, inspired by Hawaii’s natural environment. 

Successful exporting requires doing your home­work first. Along with local business practices, cultural preferences and consumer behavior vary by market. Products suited for the U.S. may need to be adapted for a given market. 

“In Asia, we learned that climate can affect hydration of skin, so we put less oil for a lighter type of product,” Holly says. “In Hong Kong and China people are open and quick to try new things. But in Japan, people are more brand loyal, and take longer to gain trust in a product, so we understood we needed to think longer term.” 

Holly says that Japanese and Chinese consum­ers want to see the U.S. packaging before they make their purchase. So, overseas distributors will affix their own small labels on the product in the local language. 

LOOKING AHEAD 

The Hardings’ business savvy, together with export assistance from the U.S. Commercial Service and other resources, has put O’o Hawaii on the global map. 

“Exporting has been quite favora­ble for our bottom line, and with­out it, our growth would have been much diminished,” Ashley says. “In just a few years, we have exceed­ed our expectations with exports accounting for nearly 40 percent of overall sales.” 

O’o Hawaii markets through high-end retail outlet Neiman Marcus, QVC and various eCommerce plat­forms. Recently, the company launched with Samsung Fashion Group in South Korea and shipped their opening order to their Israeli dis­tributor. O’o Hawaii products are manufactured on the U.S. mainland by a California-based firm, allowing for expert chemistry, faster shipping and better economies of scale. 

SO, WHAT ADVICE MIGHT THE COUPLE HAVE FOR WOULD-BE EXPORTERS? 

Says Holly: “With e-com­merce and other sales channels, all the world is a potential cus­tomer. If you haven’t trav­eled interna­tionally, you’re only seeing a fraction of the marketplace and trends. Traveling helps you understand the world bet­ter and opens your eyes to new growth experi­ences both personally and professionally.” 

“For us, exporting is not just a business,” Ashley says, “It’s fun.” 

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